Stephen Dedman’s The Art of Arrow Cutting, and Shadows Bite

cover, the art of arrow cuttingEvery so often a really good universe with interesting characters and a great back story is created — say, the world of the Dark Knight as depicted in the various animated Batman series, or Cynosure, the transdimensional city that is the bloody killing ground of Grimjack in his varied incarnations. Stephen Dedman, a native of Perth, Australia, has created a not-so-nice Los Angeles where vampires, mages, and killer ninjas are just part of everyday reality. Not quite as weird as Cynosure, where Hell is but a reality level away, but damn close. Hell here is quite literal, too!

While I can argue that both Batman and Grimjack are anti-heroes, that cannot be argued of our hero in this universe, Michelangelo ‘Mage’ Magistrale, a footloose photographer who wishes to avoid trouble at all costs, and whose idea of a relationship is a zipless fuck. Unfortunately for him, this relatively banal existence is about to end. Ancient evil will soon cause him endless grief!

It all starts innocently in The Art of Arrow Cutting, when Magistrale is asked by Amanda Sharmon for bus fare, and she gives him a room key in return as she’s leaving town. After Amanda catches a bus west, Magistrale becomes the focus of incomprehensible attacks and supernatural manifestations straight out of a horror movie. How horrible, you ask? How about a goblin that consists of a severed head and two hands? Or serpent tattoos that are alive and can kill with deadly venom? Those are two of the less evil things he encounters.

(Slight digression. Yadomejutsu, the art of arrow cutting, is a technique used to literally evade arrows or anything else that might be thrown at you with deadly force. It is a physical art, but as any true practitioner of the martial arts will tell you, yadomejutsu is derived from the strength of the mind and the spirit as much as the body. Keep this in mind: keeping tightly focused is the key to how our hero and his friends survive.)

Now let’s suppose that gods, demons, and magic are all real. Let’s further accept that a key, or a cursed object perhaps, can be used to activate a person’s magical abilities. Just suppose that a Japanese god, say the God of Luck and Gambling, creates some keys to assist some lucky, or perhaps unlucky, humans in getting what they truly desire. Sharmon, our penniless traveler, has stolen one of these keys. She uses it and Mage somehow ends up with it with no idea what it is. (Hint — it looks like a key, but actually is much more than a mere physical key.) Sharon leaves, and now something really horrid shows up — a rukoro-kubi, a bakemono, the aforementioned Japanese goblin that wreaks havoc as a head and a pair of hands.

Mage needs help, and finds it in the form of Charlie Takumo, a modern-day ninja stunt man who knows more than is healthy about these things straight out of a very bad nightmare. Unfortunately, neither Mage or Charlie knows that the magic monster’s master is a powerful wizard named Takemaga, who controls much of Los Vegas and has connections to the yakuza. However, they will soon know they are up against some pretty bad forces.

And things will get worse, much worse! Suddenly everyone’s looking for Mage — the police arrest him for the murder of Amanda; organized crime figures, including Takemaga, want the key; impossible demons are trying to kill him. What’s a mage to do? I’m not saying — let’s just say it’s a dandy read.

Other reviews of the book have consistently stressed the ‘magic noir’ setting, and the feeling that the author doesn’t take himself too seriously. I can’t really add anything more to that; I agree with those reviewers. This is cover, shadows bitea very good piece of dark fantasy — not horror! — from a writer who clearly is worth keeping track of. Let me stress once more than is dark fantasy in the vein (go ahead, groan) of Charles de Lint’s Mulengro, or Steven Brust & Megan Lindholm’s The Gypsy. There’s gore and blood, but nothing terribly gross. This certainly ain’t Clive Barker style horror!

Shadows Bite apparently picks up the story a few years after the events of Arrowcutting. Charlie Takumo is attempting to get his life together, practicing his martial arts and slowly becoming a modern ninja. Complications, like a criminal family trying to kill Charlie, are stressing him out a bit. (Well, very slightly!)

When their mutual friend Kelly is assigned a case where the evidence points to a vampire, which obviously the police can’t believe in, things get very, very weird. Despite Mage’s now not so limited control over the key (he can alter his physical form, teleport to the moon and back, and do true psychic surgery), an increasing army of vampires isn’t very much fun for Mage and his growing group of friends. Keep in mind that the vampires are assisted by a cursed Mage who made a pact with some very nasty demons, and a nasty bounty hunter is gunning for Mage, too.

Shadows Bite allows Dedman to develop his characters and their universe a bit more, but basically it’s just another fun romp with more of the in jokes (film mainly) that were scattered liberally in the first novel. You must read The Art of Arrowcutting first; otherwise, Shadows Bite will make little sense at all. I look forward to the third novel in this series, as Dedman has a lot of plot possibilities, given the characters and their universe.

(Tor, 1999)
(Tor, 2002)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s, the foremost SFF fandom site.

More Posts - Website